The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Hate-Motivated Violence

The Rodney King Case
Possible Implications for Canada

6.1 The Rodney King Case

On March 3, 1991, in Los Angeles, California, several police cars chased Rodney G. King, a robbery parolee who was allegedly speeding. Two friends were with him in the car. After a police chase during which he drove through several intersections against red lights, King eventually was forced to stop. Although the two passengers in the car complied with police requests to exit the car and were subdued with minor resistance, King apparently refused to exit the car and was physically assisted in doing so. He was subsequently struck as many as 56 times by officers wielding batons, kicked at least six times, and shot with a Taser electronic stun gun. The beating was administered by three Los Angeles police officers, allegedly at the order of a police sergeant who was on the scene. Twenty-three other law enforcement officers were also present and watched the beating, but apparently made no effort to stop it. There were also several civilian bystanders, including George Holiday, who witnessed the incident. Holiday videotaped the beating of King. King suffered extensive injuries as a result of the beating, including skull fractures and nerve damage to part of his face.<178>

On March 15, 1991, three police officers -- Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno -- and police sergeant Stacey Koon, were indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury in connection with the beating. All four were charged with "assault by force likely to produce great bodily injury and a deadly weapon" and with assault "under color of authority". The deadly weapons involved were police batons or nightsticks, except in the case of Briseno, who was charged only with using his feet to kick King. Powell and Koon also were charged with filing false reports, and Koon was charged with being an accessory. Koon did not actively participate in the beating but allegedly aided and abetted it.<179>

Prior to the trial on these charges, the accused sought to obtain a change of venue for the trial to a county other than Los Angeles County. The change of venue application, originally denied at trial, was granted on appeal. The California Court of Appeal, Second District, approved the change of venue application, given the extensive pre-trial publicity surrounding the case, the fact that the defendants' being police officers had caused a high level of indignation and outrage, and political factors involving criticism of the then Chief of Police, Daryl Gates.<180> The trial site chosen was Simi Valley in Ventura County. Simi Valley is a predominantly white, middle-class community 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The jury comprised ten white persons, one Hispanic person, and one Asian person.

On April 29, 1992, the jury rendered its verdicts, generally finding the accused not guilty of the charges.<181> The result of the verdicts was immediate: rioting, which resulted in loss of life and extensive damage to property (more than 50 dead and upwards of one billion dollars in damage). Many legal commentators argued that a major reason for the verdicts of not guilty was the change of venue to a location that was not comparable demographically to Los Angeles County.<182>

These acquittals on state criminal charges, however, did not end the matter. Under federal law, the officers could also be prosecuted for violation of Rodney King's constitutional rights. In August 1992, a federal grand jury returned a two- count indictment charging that Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno, while under colour of law, deprived Rodney King of his federally protected civil rights. The first count of the indictment charged three of the defendants -- Powell, Wind, and Briseno -- with violating King's federal constitutional rights by wilfully using unreasonable force against him while arresting him. The second count of the indictment charged Koon, then a sergeant of the Los Angeles Police Department, with violating King's federal constitutional rights by wilfully permitting the three other officers to unlawfully assault him, thereby wilfully depriving him of his right to be kept free from harm while in official custody. Both counts charged violations of 18 U.S.C. 242, which, if injury results to the victim, is punishable by a maximum term of ten years' imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.<183> As previously noted,<184> section 242 generally makes it a crime for anyone under colour of law to deprive any inhabitant of any state, territory or district of any rights protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. The jury in this instance was composed of nine white persons, two black persons and one Hispanic person.

On Friday, April 17, 1993, the jury rendered its verdicts on these prosecutions. Two police officers, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, were found guilty of the charges against them. The other two officers, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind, were found not guilty. Unlike the previous trial, no riots broke out as a result of the verdicts. Instead, there appeared to be a collective sigh of relief. On August 4, 1993, these officers were sentenced to two and a half years in prison for the beating of Rodney King.<185>

Although the Rodney King beating and the subsequent acquittals at the first state trial clearly raised in the public's mind the issue of racism in American society, none of the prosecutions specifically alleged racial motivation. Indeed, it was only at the later federal trial that Rodney King, taking the stand for the first time, initially testified that the officers had made racial epithets at the time of his beating; even then, he later had to admit that he was unsure that the police did in fact use such epithets. <186>

How is it that, after generally being acquitted at trial on state criminal charges, the police officers responsible for beating Rodney King were able to be prosecuted again under federal law? In the United States, the courts have applied a "dual sovereignty doctrine" that generally allows a state to prosecute a person under state law after the person has been prosecuted under federal law, or allows the federal government to prosecute a person under federal law after the person has been prosecuted under state law, even though the state or federal violation arises out of the same act and even though the state and federal offences are substantially the same.<187> However, the dual sovereignty doctrine has been limited somewhat by federal policy and by various state statutes.<188>

In the context of federal civil rights prosecutions, this means that there is no constitutional double jeopardy bar to launching a federal criminal prosecution in the event that, at an earlier state trial, an accused was acquitted of the crime charged. There has been criticism of this approach. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union recently voted to oppose as unconstitutional the federal civil rights trial of the officers who beat Rodney King, saying it violates the officers' right not to be tried twice for the same offence.<189>

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